Towards more participatory governance in Singapore

By Hoa Nguyen and Julienne Chen

Since the early days of independence, the Singapore government has tried and tested various modes of engagement with its constituents. Many of the earlier iterations of engagement consisted of campaigns to communicate policies and national development goals; however, with time, these methods of engagement began to take on different shapes and forms, and have adopted collaborative elements in an effort to experiment with more participatory, interactive dialogue.

In the first two decades of independence, the Singapore governments engagement with its citizens largely consisted of disseminating information on development and policies. In this initial phase, leadership from the government was strong, decisions about how to develop the nation were made and implemented swiftly, and social change was primarily driven through a top-down approach (Teo 1992, 171). Formal engagement channels were primarily one-way (communicative), as the government initiated large scale social campaigns to inform and seek the cooperation of residents to help meet various national agendas. These messages were circulated through Community Centres (a central community service provision unit in residential neighbourhoods), using banners, leaflets, flyers and other materials, as well as popular media channels such as the radio and television.

Campaign Posters. Source: iremember.sg

In the early 1990s, collective consciousness began expanding beyond bread-and-butter concerns such as basic access to housing and education, and adopted a more critical, nuanced stance toward social issues and development trajectories of the nation. With the improved quality of life and increased education levels amongst the public came an increasing diversity of voices within society, such as in areas of heritage and conservation, where people began to question the pace of demolition and changes in Singapore’s physical and cultural landscape. This shift in the social consciousness was further accompanied by a global trend of more consultative governance and the need to compete in a world where transparency and liberal ideas are becoming more valued (Paul and Tan, 2003).

The desire from the public to play a more active role in the development of the nation has translated into new avenues for groups and individuals to provide their ideas and input. This includes a range of platforms that have been set up by different ministries in Singapore since the early 2000s, both to generate ideas and feedback, as well as to stimulate more public dialogue. Examples include:

  • REACH Singapore: a consultation platform that collects input from Singaporeans on policy and programmatic issues raised by government agencies, and allows civil servants to publicly respond to feedback. REACH also publishes materials on national issues, such as the Singapore Budget and National Day Rally Speeches, in an attempt to be a one-stop information portal for citizens.
  • eCitizen Ideas!: an idea-generation platform for residents. Government agencies pose questions or challenges to the public, and invite residents to respond with their ideas and solutions; ideas are often voted on by the public, and some agencies will provide support to the best ideas for implementation. The platform thus allows for a two-way exchange between government bodies and the public.
  • Our Singapore Fund: provides funding to self-initiated projects. Through this program, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth has engaged the community to develop and implement more than 50 projects, many of which lie in the areas of community building and inter-generational bonding.
  • The Rail Corridor Consultation Group (RCCG): In 2011, the RCCG was formed by the Urban Redevelopment to engage with a range of stakeholders –residents, academics, historians, conservationists and large developers –to collect input and ideas for the redevelopment of the railway corridor. The RCCG adopted a variety of online and offline engagement techniques, including community walks, visioning workshops, design charrettes, idea competitions and public exhibitions.
  • Our Singapore Conversation: August 2012 saw the launch of Our Singapore Conversation, an engagement exercise that reached 47,000 Singaporeans via 660 nationwide in-person and virtual dialogues. Various focus group discussions were also organised by different government agencies with youth, young working adults, the older population, and other population segments. This was the largest engagement exercise that has been done to date, generating important insights into the values and aspirations that Singaporeans hold.

These initiatives suggest an increasing willingness of the Singapore government to engage the public. However, one challenge remains in that there is often no clear understanding of how such voices will be given weight or factored into decision-making processes. For instance, input collected from the abovementioned Our Singapore Conversation are published into an online report, but little is known about the changes in planning and policies that have come from such input. Similarly, while the RCCG came up with nine planning and design goals that were used to drive the development of the Rail Corridor moving forward, the extent to which participation informed the selected goals is unclear. Creating more transparency in these processes could strengthen government efforts to involve its citizens.

One consideration is how to create clear pathways to turn citizen voices into concrete actions for decision-making. This involves going beyond creating channels for citizens to voice out their concerns and ideas, and putting in place mechanisms to empower citizens to have more direct influence through participation. For instance, in Paris, a portion of the annual budget is reserved for residents’ideas and participation. Anyone who is a resident in Paris can submit an idea that they think the city government should implement. Ideas are voted upon, and offline deliberation exercises are carried out for the most popular ideas to determine a budget for each project, after which the government will help to see the idea through. This process is almost wholly driven by the desires, needs and participation of the public. Citizens see the consequence and results of their decisions and deliberation, and through the process, better understand the constraints and goals of the budgeting process that city governments go through. Such attempts at public accountability can contribute to a more trusting and informed public that sees and experiences tangible meaning through participation.

In comparison to the communicative strategies of post-independence days, urban governance in Singapore has evolved to stimulate more engagement and more participatory practices. The hard work now lies in the thoughtful incorporation of public input into planning and policymaking. It proves to be a challenging hurdle, involving an evaluation of the quality and representation of public voices, as well as a balance between individual opinions and collective needs. Opening up decision-making processes to public deliberation also often comes at the cost of efficient and centralised problem-solving that has underpinned the nation’s transformation over the past half century. All of these are real challenges that must not be taken lightly. However, when citizens are given more agency to affect change, and are able to see the full consequence of their voices and actions, this can also lead to more meaningful and higher quality participation, and greater ownership and investment in the solutions by the public. This virtuous cycle requires a great deal of learning and doing from both the government and the public, but with the right tools, systems and policies in place, it can be an important method to create more responsive, informed and inclusive cities.

 

References:

Paul, K., & Tan, A. S. S. (2003). Democracy and the grassroots sector in Singapore. Space and Polity7(1), 3-20

Seng, L. T. (2013). Singapore: a city of campaigns. IFLA World Library and Information Congress 2013

Teo, S.E., (1992). Planning Principles in Pre- and Post-Independence Singapore. The Town Planning Review 63, 163–185